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Where You Can't Hide in Plain Sight

I recall in college, a professor once commenting how he could not stand it when people said they preferred church congregations that were small. He happened to attend one of those protestant "mega-churches" that had about 4000 members. He said at the time, "Heaven is going to have a lot of people there, so if you don't like crowds, you won't be happy in Heaven." Interesting rhetoric, and it might actually convince someone who does not know how to think with logical argumentation, but it is a foolish defense. In Heaven, everyone will be perfectly redeemed and able to deal with large numbers of people who exist in complete holiness. In the meantime, we are fallen, and thus do not have the ability to handle as much as we will then. Simply put: what is good for us now, is not necessarily what is going to be good for us in the eternal state.

I was remembering this professor's perspective one time a few years ago, when someone first came to St. George Church and commented on how much he liked the fact that we were a "small parish". At the time, we were much smaller than we are now (and we still are not a gigantic parish), closer to about 30 total people in membership. He said one of the things he liked about small churches was that you could not "hide in plain sight". I knew exactly what he was referring to. Usually (if nothing is done to prevent it) the average Catholic can enter a large size parish and just "hide in plain sight" because often people just smile and let you go. There is the appearance quite often that there is no need to get to know anyone in a large parish, because there are so many people that you just go about your business and leave everyone else alone (kind of like being in a gigantic shopping mall).

That is not supposed to be the way that a parish works though. I am not saying that every large parish is necessarily an impersonal social club. What I am saying is that in smaller parishes there is the advantage of being unable to hide. Yes, certainly, people can avoid community in small parishes (many think I do not notice, but I do notice them scooting out the door quickly after Mass), but it is much harder to do so, and it is also much more noticeable when someone does. This is a common feature of many (not all) Ordinariate parishes. They tend to be smaller in total numbers. I have even heard that a few of them have chosen a size by which they automatically branch off and form new parishes from their current members (i.e. keeping the total size at only a few hundred).

This smaller size not only affects the attitude and demeanor of the parishioners, it also has an impact on the parish priest (for good or bad). I know it affects me for the better. As a pastor I find that a smaller parish can cause me to be concerned about every single member because I do not take them for granted. I know that each member is important for the survival of the parish and I am able (with the smaller overall numbers) to get to know each one of them more easily. I remember what it was like to be assigned to a parish that had hundreds of households (my largest parish was about 375 families). There were so many that if I lost one or two it was barely noticeable (and I acknowledge that this is not a good thing). So people seemed almost expendable. In a smaller parish, you feel the need to hang on to every single one of them, so you treat them differently.

Thus, regardless of whether someone likes big parishes or small parishes, there is a dynamic in how priest and parishioners interact with each other based on the overall size of the parish. So for us at St. George here in little Republic, Missouri (only about 15,000 population) we have a certain perspective on each other. It is obvious that people reach out to visitors and new members quickly. They also notice when someone is not present at Mass. There may come a day when we find the need to form a separate parish and have some of the members move to the new community for their home parish, but for now, there is a pleasant sense of true spiritual family in this little place where it is still fairly hard to hide in plain sight.


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